Doctoral student talks rarely necessitate ministerial intervention, but a cancelled lecture on sex and gender has earned one of Germany’s top research universities a reprimand from up-high and prompted a nationwide debate.

In late June, Humboldt University in Berlin cancelled a science festival lecture by Marie-Luise Vollbrecht, a PhD candidate studying fish physiology.

Christoph Schneider, vice president for research, told Times Higher Education her session on the biological basis of sex and gender had gone unnoticed until a few days before the festival, when student representatives alerted staff to planned protests, both for and against the lecture taking place. 

Correspondence from the police prompted the university to cancel the talk, citing concerns for the safety of young and elderly visitors to the science festival, which has been held across Berlin for over 20 years.

That decision prompted Bettina Stark-Watzinger, the federal minister of education and research, to weigh-in, telling the tabloid newspaper Bild “it must not be in the hands of activists which positions may be heard and which may not”.

“Right from the decision it was clear we would not simply cancel the talk but we would rather reschedule and bring it into a setting we can secure, so the debate could happen without affecting others,” said Professor Schneider.

“We are not part of cancel culture, we are part of the culture that allows for controversial debates, but is our responsibility that the setting for such debates is appropriate,” he said, adding that the university would hold potentially controversial talks as stand-alone events in future.

In the end, Ms Vollbrecht gave her talk over YouTube, with an in-person version shifted to coincide with a new event on how to deal with societally controversial topics at universities, featuring the minister, Humboldt president Peter Frensch, and Vollbrecht’s doctoral supervisor, Rüdiger Krake, among other panellists.

During the session, Professor Frensch said future festival speakers will be sifted based on their technical expertise, while Professor Krake said his student’s talk only covered well-established biology, Spiegel magazine reported.

Speaking to THE, Ms Vollbrecht said she is “not against transgender people, but I am a gender critical feminist and I’m pro-woman and I’m pro-science”.

She said she was inspired by Emma Hilton, a biologist at the University of Manchester, and wanted to clarify the differences between sex and gender at the festival, which was themed around fake news. “In English you have sex and gender, but in German we use the same word, so I wanted to explain how in biology there are only two sexes,” she said.

Critics have accused Ms Vollbrecht of transphobia after an open letter and editorial she co-authored in the Welt newspaper, which claimed German public broadcasters “indoctrinate” children with transgender ideology.

In a statement, the university said Ms Vollbrecht’s Welt article was “not in line with the mission statement of the [university] and the values it represents” but that “from a scientific point of view, there are no arguments against the scientist’s planned lecture on questions of biological sex”.

“The university has an obligation to secure academic freedom and the personal integrity of researchers, as long as their work follows the rules of good scientific practice,” said Professor Schneider.

He said the decision to reschedule the talk, which was not directly based on Ms Vollbrecht’s doctoral research, was intended to preserve freedom of speech, rather than of research.

The outcome is relatively peaceable compared to other tumults over transgender rights at European campuses. The University of Geneva recently filed a criminal complaint against protesters who disrupted a book talk on sex and gender.

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